Cold Creams

Described as an emulsion “based on beeswax as emulsifier and thickener” (deNavarre, 1941, p. 237) these creams have a long history of cosmetic use. The first cold cream has been attributed to the Roman physician Galen (CE 150) who reputedly made a primitive emulsion by mixing water with molten beeswax and olive oil. It was laborious to make – requiring a great deal of mixing – and tended to separate on standing. Despite these drawbacks the formulation persisted – generally using rose-water and/or oil of roses as a perfume – and was included in the first edition of the ‘Pharmacopœa Londinensis’ in 1618.

In later formulations, sweet almond oil replaced the olive oil.

4 oz. of the purest almond oil.
1¼ oz. of white wax.
2 oz. of diluted rose-water.
A few drops of pure essential oil of roses.

(Verni, 1946, p. 407)

Vegetable oils like almond oil are liable to deteriorate when they are mixed with water, so early forms were not long-lasting. Their short shelf life meant that cold creams were usually made up at home or purchased in small quantities, freshly made up by a local pharmacist/chemist/druggist, the discarded pots of which turn up frequently in Victorian-era rubbish tips.

Nearly all creams sold in stores become rancid, and in this state are irritating to the skin instead of soothing. It is better to make your own creams. It can be done with very little trouble and at small expense.
For years a prominent society lady, noted for her exquisite skin and complexion, has used a cream made from the following recipe:
1 oz. Spermaceti.
1 oz. White Wax.
1 oz. Benzoated Lard.
2 oz. Almond Oil.
¼ oz. Camphor Gum.
Dissolve the camphor gum in the oil, and add the other ingredients, heating the whole only to melt. When melted, beat with a fork for one hour, or until perfectly cold, white and creamy. In using it the face must be perfectly free from dust or any foreign matter. Take a small quantity on the tips of the fingers, and spread on the face and neck, rubbing until the cream is absorbed by the skin. The almond oil spreads very easily, and a very little of the cream will cover the face and neck. The face becomes soft and velvety almost immediately. A very fine effect is produced by rubbing the “shine” off with a soft flannel dipped in powder. Using powder in this manner not only produces a better effect, but the skin is not injured by the powder.

(Ayer, 1890, pp. 20-21)

Perhaps the only advantage of a short shelf life was that it enabled the local pharmacist/chemist/druggist to alter the formula of their cold creams slightly according to the season; to increase the proportion of wax in summer, so the cream was more viscous in the warmer weather, and conversely, to use less wax during winter, when the cold weather would tend to harden the cream.

Industrial manufacture

The second half of the nineteenth century saw two advances in cold cream formulations that together enabled them to be manufactured on an industrial scale. The first was the replacement of almond oil by petrolatum and mineral oil; the second, the inclusion of borax (sodium borate).

Mineral oils

In 1869, Robert Chesebrough extracted petrolatum from crude petroleum and began selling it under the trade name Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. Once established, Chesebrough produced a range of products made with petrolatum including Vaseline Cold Cream, developed in 1876. Petrolatum had a much longer shelf life than almond oil and was a good deal cheaper. This not only reduced the cost of making cold cream but its extended shelf life meant that it could be shipped for sale in distant parts.

See also: Petrolatum/Petroleum Jelly


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, borax was also introduced into cold creams. A formula for a borax cold cream was incorporated into the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1890 and then into the British Pharmacopoeia in 1914 (deNavarre, 1941). However, the first report of its use appears to have been Adolf Vomácka [1856-1919] in ‘New Remedies’, published in September, 1883. The 1885 report below is a repeat of part of that entry.

Cold Cream—Improved Method of Manipulation.—Mr. Ad. Vomacka communicates the following formula and directions for cold cream:

White wax200 parts.
Spermaceti500 parts.
Oil of almonds, expressed1600 parts.
Rose water80 parts.
Oil of rose, for each 2.4 kilos30 drops.

Melt the wax and spermaceti at a gentle heat on the water-bath, pour the mass into a very shallow, warmed porcelain dish, and let it stand over night covered with paper. Next morning, begin to work the hardened mass by a gentle, uniform to-and-fro motion of the pestle, which should be held lightly between the fingers without exerting pressure, commencing at the edge, gradually working towards the middle, and mixing the whole thoroughly.
The prescribed amount of rose water is now slowly added, in a thin stream, and while constantly stirring. If desired, 5 grms. of borax may be dissolved in the rose water, which will facilitate the combination. [my italics] The mortar is now well covered and set aside for one or two days, in order to give the fat a chance to combine with the water. It is then again briskly stirred for a quarter or half an hour, and finally, the oil of rose is added, previously dissolved in a little castor oil, which later imparts to the cold cream an extremely handsome lustre.
The readiness with which the cold cream becomes rancid or acid makes it advisable to add some suitable preservative, if it is to be kept for any length of time. A very good method is to add a small quantity of salicylic acid dissolved in rose water or sweet spirits of nitre.

(Proceedings of the American pharmaceutical association, 1885, p. 56)

When borax is dissolved in water it produces boric acid and sodium hydroxide. The sodium hydroxide interacts with cerotic acid in the beeswax – a free fatty acid that makes up about 13% of beeswax by weight – and forms an anionic emulsifier, while the boric acid buffers the system. The emulsifier created by the chemical reaction made the oil and water parts of the cold cream less likely to separate on standing, so cold creams made with borax were more stable.

Borax-beeswax cold creams were white, opaque, had a high lustre and spread easily on the skin, but the use of almond oil still limited the shelf life of the cream. When borax-beeswax cold creams were made with petrolatum and mineral oil rather than almond oil, cold creams were produced that were stable, cheap to produce and had a long shelf life, making them ideal preparations for industrial manufacture and distribution. A sample recipe is given below:

White beeswax22.0%
White mineral oil50.8%
Distilled water26.0%

(Thomssen, 1947, p. 106)

The first commercial cold cream made with petrolatum and borax appears to have been Daggett & Ramsdell‘s Perfect Cold Cream, manufactured in New York from 1893.

See also: Daggett & Ramsdell

Other commercial cold creams followed, including one by Pond’s, a name that would become almost synonymous with cold cream.

Pond’s Type o/w Face Cream

IngredientWt. %
Mineral oil (paraffinum liquidum)50.00
Water (aqua)qs 100.00

Procedure: Heat oils to 80°C. Heat water and add borax to 70°C. Add oils to the water with rapid mixing, cool to 40°C and add fragrance.

(Schlossman, 2009, p. 699)

See also: Pond’s Extract Company

Beeswax-borax cold creams were usually made as water-in-oil (W/O) emulsions. After the creams are applied to the skin much of the water evaporates leaving the remaining oil to act as a solvent which cleanses the skin of cosmetics and other grime. There may also be some surfactant activity. Some chemists suggested that as the water evaporates it cooled the skin and that this is the reason the creams are called ‘cold creams’. An alternative explanation is that in the days before mineral oil or petrolatum were used, the creams needed to be stored in a cool place to stop them going rancid. This made them cold to the touch and so gave them their name.

Cold creams that contained a high percentage of mineral oil (liquid paraffin) or petrolatum were regarded primarily as cleansers, to be spread on thickly, then removed with a cloth or tissues. However, depending on the formulation, they could be used for a variety of purposes and were often advertised as beauty creams.

Cold creams as cleansers

City air in most large western cities was a good deal grimier than it is today; dust, soot and other particulate matter collected on the face, making it an enduring problem. Early advertisements for cold cream stressed the need to “cleanse your skin of all the dirt which lodges in the pores through the day, and which, more than anything else, injures the skin” (Pond’s advertisement, 1917). It was also recommended that the cream be used at night to give it additional time to act.

The Cold Cream, applied whenever convenient during the day, always after exposure to the open air and before retiring at night, brings to the surface particles of dust and dirt which can easily be removed with a soft towel. Its gentle oils will sink deep into the pores especially during sleep and cleanse the skin thoroughly.

(Pond’s advertisement, 1927)

As the use of make-up increased, cold creams were also promoted as a way to help remove face powder, lipstick, rouge, foundation and other forms of make-up.

An early competitor for cold cream cleansers was soap. A lot of early advertising by cosmetic companies was aimed at persuading consumers that using soap and water on their face either did not cleanse the skin enough or was downright harmful. A Marie Earle advertisement proclaimed “Don’t wash your face recklessly with soap and water, which … may dry and roughen and wrinkle your skin” (Marie Earle advertisement, 1927). Coty advertised that their cold creams “cleanse the pores thoroughly of dust, cosmetics and excess oil – which do not yield to water alone” (Coty advertisement, 1928). Despite these advertising warnings it is probable that most women used both; that it was “common practice with many women to use a cold cream first for makeup removal, and then to complete the cleansing process by using soap” (Sagarin, 1957, p. 81).

Cold creams in beauty regimes

Cold creams formed the basis of early beauty regimes developed by Pond’s, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and others. By establishing a daily regime, cosmetic companies hoped they could increase the usage of their creams and widen consumer consumption to entire product lines.

Applying cold cream before sleep to remove the dirt, grime, and cosmetics of the day became a habit for many women. It cleansed the skin and, if not removed with soap and water, left a thin film with moisturising properties. If it was doing something else while you slept, so much the better. One wonders, for example, how many women discovered that leaving it liberally on their face when they retired, helped them avoid the ‘ministrations’ of their husbands, enabling them to get a night of uninterrupted sleep.

Since the cream will appear greasy even after an application of cold cream is wiped off with a soft towel, it is best for the sake of one’s friends to apply it at night, although husbands have been know to object to the procedure.

(Phillips, 1934, pp. 30-31)

See also: Day and Night Creams

In the 1920s, adding ingredients like lanolin to cold creams enabled manufacturers to make additional claims for the product. Substances like lanolin were thought to have ‘nutritive’ value, so cold creams that contained it could also be promoted as ‘skin foods’.

Pond’s cold cream – a food and cleanser for tired pores – should be gently massaged into the face, neck hands and arms each night on retiring. Because it supplements the natural oil of the skin it aids in preventing and eradicating little lines that time and care are constantly trying to etch around the eyes and mouth. Pond’s Creams never promote the growth of hair.

(Pond’s advertisement, 1927)

See also: Skin Foods


The general, all-purpose nature of cold cream, which had been its strength, was also its weakness. The recognition of different skin types and skin conditions along with the proliferation of skin creams containing ‘beneficial additives’ saw the need for an all-purpose skin cream decline. This fracturing of the commercial skin-care market – begun with the introduction of stearate (vanishing) creams in 1892 – picked up pace in the 1920s and 1930s, eroded sales of cold creams, and pushed them increasingly into the low-end of the skin-care market.

See also: Vanishing Creams

The development of specialist cleansers also reduced the appeal of cold creams as a cleansers as well. Starting with liquefying cleansing creams which became popular in the 1930s – specifically advertised as being better than greasy cold creams – alternative skin cleansers for different skin types and specific skin problems appeared on the market, further diminishing the use of cold creams.

See also: Liquefying Cleansing Creams

Cold creams today

Although the use of cold creams has declined, they are still available. However, when modern products are compared to the original formulations marked differences are evident, primarily in the replacement of borax with modern surfactants.

Pond’s Cold Cream Cleanser
Ingredients: Mineral oil, Water, Ceresin, Beeswax, Triethanolamine, Ceteth-20, Fragrance, Behenic acid, Montan wax, Cetyl alcohol, Carbomer, DMDM hydantoin, Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate.

Improvements in preservatives have also allowed some to avoid the use of mineral oil, a substance disliked by many consumers.

Weleda Cold Cream
Ingredients: Water (aqua), Prunus amygdalus dulcis (sweet almond) oil, Arachis hypogaea (peanut) oil, Beeswax (cera flava), Glyceryl linoleate, Fragrance (parfum), Hectorite, Limonene, Linalool, Citronellol, Geraniol, Citral.

Still others have such complex formulations that they appear to have little relationship with traditional cold creams.

Avene Cold Cream Ultra Rich Cleansing Gel
Ingredients: Avene Thermal Spring Water (Avene Aqua), Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil (Carthamus Tinctorius Seed Oil), Mineral Oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil (Cocos Nucifera Oil), Cyclopentasiloxane, Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil (Sesamum Indicum Seed Oil), Sorbitan Stearate, Cyclohexasiloxane, Glyceryl Stearate, Peg-100 Stearate, Allantoin, Beeswax (Cera Alba), Benzoic Acid, Cetyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Fragrance (Parfum), Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Hydroxide, Sodium Polyacrylate, Tetrasodium Edta, Water (Aqua).

Updated: 21st May 2017


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Jellinek, J. S. (1970). Formulation and function of cosmetics (G. L. Fenton, Trans.). New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Phillips, M. C. (1934). Skin deep: The truth about beauty aids. New York: Garden City Publishing.

Poucher, W. A. (1974). Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps (8th ed., Vols. 1-3). London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.

Proceedings of the American pharmaceutical association. (1885). Philadelphia: Author.

Sagarin, E. (Ed.). (1957). Cosmetics: Science and technology. New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc.

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Thomssen, B. S. (1947). Modern cosmetics (3rd ed.). New York: Drug & Cosmetic Industry.

Verni, M. (1946). Modern beauty culture (2nd ed.). London: New Era Publishing.